Notes of a Discussion on the Bhagavad-Gita - James A. Long, Chairman

Chapter 10

The Principles behind Action

Bhagavad-Gita, Chapter 3, cont.
(From Sunrise, June 1961. Copyright © 1961 by Theosophical University Press.)

Chairman -- This evening we take up the concluding portion of chapter 3, which begins with a question that sounds very familiar indeed, something we all must have asked ourselves many a time:

By what is man propelled to commit offenses; seemingly against his will and as if constrained by some secret force?

And Krishna tells Arjuna it is "lust" -- actually the word is kama, meaning "desire" -- which impels him; passion, "sprung from the quality of rajas." Once again we have the "qualities" or gunas, which came up last time; but as they are unfamiliar to most of us, it may be well before going further to review their basic attributes as well as their function in nature. Briefly, then, they are three in number; the highest, sattva, characterized by wisdom, light, and equilibrium; rajas by motion, restlessness, action, and drive; and tamas, the lowest, by darkness, inertia, and ignorance. They exist on every plane of the cosmos, flowing through and affecting, in appropriate degree, the consciousness of "gods," men, as well as the lower creatures.

The subject is much too vast to condense properly within a few words, but the essential point to keep in mind is that nature is bipolar: consciousness or spirit evolving through its vehicles of matter, and it is in and by means of this matter-substance that the "three qualities" are said to function. Regardless, then, on what plane the "impulses to action" may be felt, whether in the sattva or highest area of our character, in the rajas or psycho-emotional nature, or again in the physical or tamas aspect, being matter-born they cannot touch that which is spirit-born -- the divine center within each one of us. It is this which the Gita reiterates as chapter by chapter the theme recurs, and the influence and range of power of the gunas or qualities is unfolded, until Krishna reveals, finally, his "Divine form" to Arjuna, and he perceives at last the sacred mystery of his own inmost Self.

But let us continue with the answer to Arjuna's question. Trudy, would you like to carry on now, to the end of the chapter?

Trudy -- Starting at the top of page 28, Krishna explains that this passion or kama is "insatiable" and the "enemy of man on earth":

As the flame is surrounded by smoke, and a mirror by dust, and as the womb envelopes the foetus, so is the universe surrounded by this passion. By this -- the constant enemy of the wise man, formed from desire which rageth like fire and is never to be appeased -- is discriminative knowledge surrounded. Its empire is over the senses and organs, the thinking principle and the discriminating faculty also; by means of these it cloudeth discrimination and deludeth the Lord of the body. Therefore, O best of the descendants of Bharata, at the very outset restraining thy senses, thou shouldst conquer this sin which is the destroyer of knowledge and of spiritual discernment.
The senses and organs are esteemed great, but the thinking self is greater than they. The discriminating principle is greater than the thinking self, and that which is greater than the discriminating principle is He. Thus knowing what is greater than the discriminating principle and strengthening the lower by the Higher Self, do thou of mighty arms slay this foe which is formed from desire and is difficult to seize.

Dan -- It's rather a shock to one's ego to find that the very problems which we feel to be so very personal to ourselves were apparently just as disturbing to people who probably lived thousands of years ago. Guess human nature hasn't changed much!

Paul -- But St. Paul, you remember, also writes of this very thing in one of his epistles, I believe to the people of Rome, when he says the good he would do, he does not, but that which he ought not, that he does, or words to this effect

Chairman -- Yes, I recall the passage. Let me check it a moment as it might be valuable to compare his observations with those of Krishna. . . . Here we are, chapters 7 and 8. He mentions the law that is "spiritual" but that within man there is also a "carnal" element that incites to wrongdoing:

For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. . . .
For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:
But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin . . .
For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. . . .
But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. . . .
For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.

There is more in this vein, emphasizing the fundamental duality of hman nature, related, of course, to Christ as the central plank of salvation.

Martha -- There is much in the New Testament that has been an inspiration to me through the years, and I think what St. Paul says here is to the point. But the more I live with the Gita and sense the broad universal philosophy that flows all through it, I find myself becoming increasingly attuned to Krishna's approach.

Ellen -- I can appreciate that. One reason occurs to me, that Krishna offers a philosophic basis on which to found our behavior, whereas St. Paul simply makes a statement of fact: if we live after the flesh, we'll die (metaphorically speaking); but if we heed the Spirit, we'll have everlasting life.

Marie -- But aren't they saying the same thing in essence? Naturally the words and similes are different, as they were each talking to their own people, at periods in history with different religious and social backgrounds, as well as separated not only geographically but time-wise by many centuries.

Trudy -- I think Marie is right, because both Paul and Krishna warn against gratifying our "desires," reminding us at the same time that within us dwells the "Spirit of God" or the "Self," which Krishna here calls "He," and which he suggests is greater even than our mind and higher intelligence.

Wilbur -- But St. Paul does so as a kind of directive -- do good, or else suffer the consequences, and this tends to produce a psychology of fear; whereas Krishna, it seems to me, directs his appeal to our inmost center, to follow the law of "spirit" because we spontaneously respond to the beauty and lightness of the challenge.

Tom--As far as I see it, it boils down to this: it's not what is said, by Krishna or Paul or by any world teacher for that matter, which is so important. It's what we do about it in our lives, whether or not we find the courage to put into practice what we know.

Chairman -- Fine, Tom. Any more ideas? Yes, Dan.

Dan -- Well, I have no quarrel to pick with any of the thoughts expressed, though I don't think either Paul or Krishna does more than state the basic problem -- which I guess is as it should be. As Tom says, it's not what we know that will save or damn us; it's what we do with that knowledge that counts. What I'd really like, however, is to dig underneath this rather old-fashioned terminology and find out, in plain simple words, what Krishna is saying.

Jack -- It's the phraseology that is confusing, I find, more than the ideas. Probably if we knew Sanskrit the whole thing would be easier to grasp. For example, I myself would like to know what is meant here by "the thinking self" and the "discriminating principle," and so forth. As I see it, what Trudy read seems to be mainly that as you go higher, you eventually reach "He," which I suppose is another way of saying God or our divine self.

Chairman -- Thanks a lot. Jack, and you too Dan. I am very glad you fellows brought this up. In fact, I had hoped some of you might want to go more deeply into the philosophy behind this particular passage, for to my mind it is one of the most important in the whole of the Gita, in that it gives an insight into the many-principled nature of man which, if we understand even to a degree, can be of real help in handling the very problem Arjuna so clearly states. When we learn who we really are, what we have to contend with in both our strengths and our weaknesses, then half the battle is won. It is when we remain in the dark about ourselves, and know only that if we don't do right well get punished, that we set up all kinds of unnecessary barriers. Incidentally, the last couple of verses here might have been lifted, almost word for word, from one of the Upanishads. If we have time later, we might look into this.

Jack -- Are you referring to the Katha-Upanishad which we discussed together some time ago?

Chairman -- That's right, and particularly to the parable of the Chariot which compared the various elements of our human constitution to the horses and reins and so forth. But let's tackle the Sanskrit terms as used here, and see how we come out.

Jack -- I don't know how the others feel, but I think I'd rather have you follow through with this chariot idea, because now that you've mentioned it I remember enough about it to believe it might throw some light on Krishna's remarks.

Chairman -- All right, then. Of course, I cannot begin to include all that is touched on, but briefly this Upanishad tells the story of a young lad called Nachiketas who, outraged at his father's obvious insincerity in offering worthless sacrifices to the gods, protested vehemently, but to no avail. The father became so angered that he challenged his son to "Go to Yama" -- God of Death. Accepting the decree, Nachiketas enters the regions of the underworld, staying three nights at Yama's abode. The latter, much impressed by the youth's profound and disciplined devotion to truth, promises him "three boons." The first two are easily granted, but when it comes to the third, Yama refuses. Three times the boy asks to know the truth about Death. Yama cannot refuse again. So, step by step, through the parable of the Chariot, he unfolds the pathway to the "Self," and thereby reveals to Nachiketas not only the mystery of Death but the inmost secret of Life.

Now then, the chariot is considered our body, the senses the paths over which the chariot is drawn; our desires are the horses, the reins the mind or "thinking self," while the driver, the charioteer holding the reins (or mind), is our "discriminating principle" or intuition.

Marie -- But where does the "He" that Krishna says is greater than them all fit in, if our intuitive principle is the charioteer?

Chairman -- I was just coming to that. The "He" is the "Self" or atman -- "owner of the chariot" -- the silent passenger who without word or gesture assists the charioteer (our intuitive or higher self) to guide the reins of our mind so that the horses of our desires will follow the divine will and thus take the chariot of our body over the roadways of experience that the charioteer directs.

Elmer -- That's quite a picture and certainly makes the Gita more understandable.

Chairman -- Now then, let's turn to Krishna's statement. Frank, did you bring the Radhakrishnan Gita with you? Good. This has the advantage of including with the English translation the Sanskrit text in Roman script so it should be fairly simple to take, say, the last paragraph which Trudy read and substitute the Sanskrit words for the specific aspects of man's constitution referred to. Then we can link them up with the Upanishad concept, and I believe we will be surprised at how really comprehensible the whole idea becomes.

Probably the easiest method for you to follow, Frank, will be to give the Sanskrit terms with a brief definition, and then place them in context.

Frank -- That will probably be the best way to do it; also I think I'll take one verse at a time, reading it first as Judge has it:

The senses and organs are esteemed great, but the thinking self is greater than they. The discriminating principle is greater than the thinking self, and that which is greater than the discriminating principle is He.

Now for the specific terms:

The "senses" -- indriyani. Originally this word meant "powers of Indra" who was the chief god of the Vedas, but later it was used for the "five organs of sense"; and, in combination with buddhi (intelligence) and karma (action) the term is said to connote the several "organs of perception and action."

The "thinking self"-- manas. The principle of "mind," from the verb man, to think, to cogitate.

The "discriminating principle" -- buddhi. This is a term for the higher intelligence in man, his intuition, power of discernment, particularly in spiritual matters. It comes from the verb budh, to know, to perceive; and when buddhi is fully illumined by atman or the divine center within, the individual becomes "buddha" or "awakened." That is why Gautama was called Buddha, the "Enlightened One."

"He" -- sah. This is a pronoun used by Krishna to suggest the impersonal quality of the "Self or atman, the highest focus of consciousness, our link with the Universal Self or Brahman. Equivalent to Emerson's "Oversoul," and often translated in the Gita as the Supreme Spirit.

Chairman -- Thanks, Frank. That should help us more easily to understand why Krishna says that the Self or atman is superior to all. Would you give now the literal translation of the verse, using the Sanskrit terms?

Frank -- The verse then will read: "The indriyani (senses) are great, it is said; greater than they is manas (our mind); greater than manas is buddhi (our intuitive principle); greater still than buddhi is sah or atman -- our divine source.

Chairman -- Good. Now before you take up the second verse, let me quote the passage from the Katha-Upanishad mentioned earlier. I will substitute the Sanskrit terms in the same manner as Frank has done here with the Gita, and you will see how closely they match, not only verbally, but in context, illustrating the gradual progression in spiritual power from the senses on up.

Greater (para) than the senses (indriyani) are their objects (or purposes), greater than the objects is manas (the mind); greater than manas is buddhi (the understanding); and greater than buddhi is the "great self" (atma mahan parah). -- I, 3, 10

Jack -- That's fine. Even we who don't know a thing about Sanskrit can follow that.

Chairman -- That's what I had hoped. OK, Frank, you can get on with the next verse, if you will please, and be sure to give Judge's first. Just as you did before.

Frank -- The second and final verse reads as follows:

Thus knowing what is greater than the discriminating principle and strengthening the lower by the Higher Self, do thou of mighty arms slay this foe which is formed from desire and is difficult to seize.

The "discriminating principle," we know, is buddhi as in the previous verse. However, the next phrase, strengthening "the lower by the Higher Self" will need a little more explanation. Literally, it is steadying the "self by the self" -- atmanam atmana. This double usage of the word "self" or atman, as in the above phrase, is a favorite theme of the Upanishads as well as the Gita, to emphasize that all beings and things are atman in essence and, in the particular setting here, to indicate the need for the human "self" to see itself by the light of its divine "Self" or atman.

The last phrase "formed from desire" is also found earlier in the reading, where Krishna refers to the "passion" which "rages like fire," etc. The Sanskrit in both places is kama-rupa -- literally "desire-body" -- the "constant enemy of the wise man," which Arjuna must "slay" if he would attain to "spiritual discernment." So the verse as a whole would read:

Thus knowing (buddhva, i.e. perceiving with buddhi-consciousness) what is beyond buddhi, and strengthening (or steadying) the human self by the Divine self (atmanam atmana), do thou of mighty arms (Arjuna) slay this enemy which is kama-rupa (desire-formed), so hard to get at."

Chairman -- Thanks very much, Frank, and I do hope none of you found this too difficult to follow. It should be of real assistance, provided we don't allow ourselves to get bogged down trying to remember all the details. Just hold to the universal picture that Krishna suggests, and the Upanishad too, of the atman or divine core of our being, around which buddhi and manas, or our higher intelligence and thinking principles as well as kama or our desire nature, are built. Without atman, none of them could be; on the other hand, without these various centers or foci of consciousness to work through, what good would the atman be? We would have a "passenger" without a charioteer or even a chariot! No, every phase of consciousness is essential to practical experience on this earth plane of responsibility.

Now let us try to relate all of this to the immediate problem facing Arjuna, and indeed to each one of us right here and now: Why do we do wrong, even against our will, as though pushed into it by some force unknown to ourselves? Is it kama alone, or is our "desire" nature incited into unwise action by the impact of rajas? Or could it be a combination of both?

Trudy -- If our desire nature is constantly stimulated by rajas, which you said earlier manifests universally and is not limited to us humans, I don't see how we can be fully to blame for our wrong actions.

Ben -- But we're not supposed to have everything dished out on a silver platter. It may be intended that our consciousness should be continually bombarded, not only from within our own minds, but also by pressures outside of ourselves.

Elmer -- I don't follow you.

Ben -- Well, it would be much too simple, as I figure it, if we could throw the guilt for all our disturbed feelings and thoughts on a universal passion, instead of having to develop our own strength of character by deliberately switching off the undesirable elements and tuning in to the higher wave-lengths. I'm not saying it's easy; actually it looks to me like the most difficult job there is.

Ray -- It could be the only way nature has of forcing us to get out of our comfortable mental grooves and consciously make strides forward.

Martha -- Krishna, I feel, is also trying to lift Arjuna away from too close a concern about himself, by telling him that kama envelops everything, as the flame is surrounded by smoke, the embryo by the womb. Even as the world, he says, is washed through with kama, so the wise man finds his finer discrimination being clouded with it and must be ever vigilant to slay the "enemy."

Chairman -- One word of caution. The word "slay" is used here, but let us not get the false notion that our kama or desire nature is essentially evil and therefore must literally be killed off. That is not the case -- there is nothing evil but thinking makes it so. That we know. Actually kama is a cosmic energy, impersonal and without attributes. In ancient Hindu thought the term has a wide significance, pertaining not only to the "desire" element in man but, as Kama-deva or the god of Desire or Love, it is intimately connected with the divine force that propels a universe into being. Instead of the word "enemy," what do you think of using "adversary," suggesting one who resists or opposes its strength against ours, rather than something intrinsically bad? We all know the adage "Without struggle there is no merit." If we would build up our spiritual muscles we must exercise them.

Dan -- I like that; it helps take the sting out of our reverses. Also I liked what Martha said, implying that this whole thing is much bigger than you or me. It's sort of wonderful to feel that our difficulties may not always be the result only of our own weakness. Of course I know we each have to solve our own problems; but even so they might be reflections down here on earth of struggles taking place in kingdoms above us. Just a thought that popped in.

Tom -- Quite a thought, but of course we can't sit around and blame the gods for our troubles. That would be as bad as thinking we can get absolved from our "sins" by merely placing them on Jesus! I must say I don't want any philosophy that holds to such a concept. I want to be responsible here and now for whatever I do or am, good or bad, and I'm not looking either to the gods or Jesus, or Krishna for that matter, to carry my burdens.

Dan -- I didn't mean it that way at all, but I can see how it must have sounded. This is what I had in mind: if this kama is universally present and not merely a local human phenomenon, this gives me a great feeling of "belonging." Sure, we're human all right, but we're not alone; we're all in this thing together, in something tremendously big because part of a moving wheel of growth that probably includes the "gods" above us as well as all the creatures below.

Hazel -- All evening something has been pecking at me but I don't know if I can express it clearly. How can kama be "sprung from rajas" as Krishna says here, and still be the power that impels a universe to imbody itself? This may not seem very important, but it puzzles me. How can these two kamas be reconciled -- the cosmic one that is apparently already in existence before the qualities come into function, and the human kama that is supposed to be born or "sprung from rajas"?

Chairman -- You've stated your question so clearly, Hazel, that I believe you've already got your answer. Don't forget that the monadic centers in man -- that is, the divine self or atman, the buddhi or higher intelligence, the manas or thinking self, the kama or desire-nature -- all of which work through the vital-physical body, belong in their essential core to our consciousness or spirit-side, while the "qualities" (on whatever plane we may be considering) act as modifiers of consciousness, and therefore are said to pertain to the vehicular or matter-side of man as well as of nature.

Before pursuing this, however, let me add a thought here to round out the picture. I believe there is a verse in the Rig-Veda which runs to this effect: "Desire -- Kama -- first arose in IT," implying that without the divine "desire" to grow, the seeds of universes-to-be would remain dormant, adrift on the boundless fields of space. But once let those sleeping monads feel the quickening touch of Kama ("divine desire"), and hosts of "god-sparks" awaken, to burst through Darkness into the Light of Day. Once again a world, then, in all its variety is finding birth.

Hazel -- That's wonderfully helpful, and reminiscent too of the role Eros, god of Love, is supposed to have fulfilled in ancient Greek mythology, before he became so materialized as Cupid.

Chairman -- True, and one naturally turns in thought to Genesis, to the "breath of the Elohim" or "Spirit of God" brooding upon the "face of the Deep" and fashioning heaven and earth. All of these expressions are but different metaphors to suggest the ever-mysterious phenomenon of spirit seeking imbodiment in matter for the sake of experience, with light and darkness, day and night, good and evil, becoming nature's "eternal ways."

It is getting late, and we really must close. We have not by any means exhausted the chapter, and there are several aspects which deserve much fuller attention. However, it is not our purpose to get technical here, so it may be that if any of you is interested you can continue your own perusal of them as occasion permits. The significant part of all that we have discussed this evening, and in fact in every get-together that we have had over the years, is that we as self-conscious thinking men and women have the power to direct our chariots in the proper paths of day-to-day experience, and to train the steeds of our desires with the reins of our mind in the control of buddhi rather than of kama. In this way, they will instantly respond to the bidding of our charioteer who receives guidance only from atman -- our guardian and silent watcher.

So next time we take up the Gita we can start with chapter 4.

Chapter 11